Interview with Elearning Superstar: Charles Jennings

It’s that time again where we get to share with you the wisdom of one of our Elearning Superstars, this week, a man who needs little introduction, Charles Jennings, a fountain of learning knowledge and all round great guy! If at any point in my career, my CV looks as comprehensive as his I will be very pleased!

In the post you will learn how 70:20:10 was devised, discover the changes this model is undergoing due to social learning, and explore the new possibilities of collaborative learning.

charles jennings elearning interview

What experience do you have in the learning industry, how did you get to where you are today?

I’ve been working in the world of learning for around about 35 years at least. Initially as an academic, I ran the UK centre for network based learning back in the 1980s and into the 90s. That was set up by the Thatcher government, they realised that with the development of the PC that it was going to have implications beyond the uses of computer geeks. So a number of centres of excellence were set up in academic institutions, universities around the country. There was one for computer aided language learning, one for expert systems, one for artificial intelligence and there was one that I ran which was for network based collaborative learning.

I was involved in online learning back in the early 80s, in fact I ran my first online learning course in 1982 and then my first international learning course in 1984 which was between people in the UK, France and Germany. I can remember having one of the first video conferencing machines on my desk back in the 80’s! BT were rolling out ISDN based video conferencing and they used to call me up every few weeks and get my view of it. They’d ask for improvements and I’d tell them ‘Just put this inside my computer please!’.

I left academia in 95, we’d launched the World’s first pure online MBA. I then went and worked for Dow Jones as strategic technology director involved in helping build workforce capability doing a number of things, one was creating transaction tools but also helping sales and marketing build capabilities through what I suppose was very early E-learning and performance support.

I was the chief learning officer at Reuters for 8 years, until 2008. Since then I’ve worked as a consultant, I established the 70:20:10 forum, but I subsequently left that organisation and now have nothing to do with it.

What is the 70:20:10 model and how can it help customers improve the effectiveness of their learning, which metrics do you believe are most important in measuring this?

70 20 10 model

70:20:10 I think is often misunderstood, first I see it often referred to as a rule, which it’s not. I see people focussing in on the numbers, it’s natural to focus on the numbers because that’s (what it is) basically how it’s described70:20:10 is what I call a reference model or a framework, we’ve come to it in various ways, principally from a small study based on work done in the late 80’s and published in the mid 90’s at the Centre for Creative leadership in North Carolina. There was a small survey that Morgan McCall and his colleagues carried out and they asked a group of successful managers:

  • ‘How did you get to where you are?’
  • ‘What development made you successful?’

From the responses they formed the model. Successful people said about 70% of their learning came from tough assignments, experience and practice, 20% came from other people (at that time this was mainly the boss, now the way that organisations are structured and thanks to the Internet this has changed a lot). 10% came from structured formal learning and reading.

There was also work before this study by Allen Tough who was a professor at the University of Toronto, he did a lot of work around experiential learning and adult learning. I spoke to Allen just before he died, he agreed that this split existed (he even came up with the same figure of 70% for people learning through experience).

For me the 70:20:10 model is a ‘Change’ model, and what it does is it allows people to frame how they support development above and beyond structured courses and programmes, that’s really the key benefit. It helps us communicate that we don’t learn everything we need to for our jobs simply by attending a classroom course. In fact we learn primarily through experience, practice conversations and networks.

In the past I’ve been accused of being the ‘Anti-training’ guy! Well I’m not ‘Anti-training’, where I’m coming from is that training works well in certain situations, usually when people are new to a job or new to a role, it works best when you have information that is explicit and which can be codified clearly. It doesn’t work well when we deal with ‘tacit’ information, where we are dealing with ambiguity, or where we have people who need immediate support.

70:20:10 is a model for extending learning across the board, it helps us move from a focus on learning to a focus on performance.

In terms of metrics, the metrics we use for measuring workplace and social learning are exactly the same as those we should be using for learning in a structured way. We could talk for hours about simply the metrics! The sort of metrics we should be focussing on should be output metrics and not learning metrics. Learning metrics are helpful to an L and D or HR department to improve efficiency. So if I know X number of people have been through an e-learning programme, or if I know that people have carried out a pre-test and then a post-test and there’s a delta there, that tells me as a learning professional something about whether people are actually using the content, but it doesn’t tell us anything about learning.

If someone gets 20% in a pre-test and 40% on the post-test don’t assume that’s learning, it’s short term memory recall. Learning is behaviour change, and this should be the most important metric, can people do their jobs better? That’s quite difficult to measure and often people shy away from that.

What excites you most about what you do and the affect your work has? What are the most gratifying ideas that you’ve contributed to the industry?

That’s very difficult, I doubt there’s many new ideas out there anymore! I think that what excites me the most is that there is a real change occurring in that across the world organisations are looking at how they build capability. It really has changed. I remember being told I was an idiot back in the 90s when we were working on online collaborative learning. I remember doing a project with Coopers and Lybrand (before they were PWC) where we were putting together groups of people to share and develop as part of their work.  Most people in the learning world said ‘What the hell is this, this is nothing to do with learning’!

That’s changed dramatically, it’s really exciting that social media is pushing the opportunity to learn through others. At some point I believe that the numbers in 70:20:10 will become meaningless, because social learning will grow, there is no doubt. If you’re in a highly innovative Environment this model won’t be the same, the 20% is going to blow up because you will be sharing and working with teams of people, that’ll be 40, 60, 80% and then the 10% may become much less. The whole awareness of social and experiential learning is really taking hold, it’s not a sideshow anymore, it’s becoming part of the mainstream.

There’s a guy called Dan Pontefract who’s written a book called ‘Flat Army’ and in that Dan proposed that 70:20:10 is actually 33:33:33, we’ll ignore the fact that if you multiply 33 by three you don’t get a hundred! But Dan and I agree that it’s not about the numbers, the fact that the numbers are there makes it really easy to explain.

What is the most important change in learning that you’ve witnessed in the last couple of years?

Definitely the rise of social media, the increase of social media at a personal level is having an impact. Most of us use social media from a personal standpoint and therefore it changes our expectations. I often tell a story about someone at a legal firm, she’s a big Twitter user and she said her company didn’t allow Twitter, so when asked ‘How does that work!?’ she said, if I have a question I’ll go to the ladies loo and Tweet my question, and then go back an hour later and I’ll have an answer! I think the big change is the awareness of how social media can be used at all sorts of levels has changed, the approach in term of control of social media is going. Organisations are no longer blocking social media, because everyone now has a device than can access social media regardless of restrictions. So now their approach is more policy based approach to ensure their people use social media sensibly and don’t damage the company. They’ve moved from trying to control the technology to control through the policy.

Bursin did a study that showed that organisations that harnessed social learning are actually 3X better at talent development.

Do you think companies have been slow to make the change?

The majority have, there are some that have acknowledged it from the start though. I can remember going on a mission when the Department of Trade and Industry almost 10 years ago. They used to send experts to different parts of the world to gather information on the behalf of UK PLC. We went on a mission to the US in 2006 called ‘Beyond e-learning’. We went down Silicon Valley, we went to Stanford University, MIT and we also went to Fidelity the huge financial organisation in Boston, the guys we met said ‘We couldn’t have grown without all this new technology’.

What are the biggest project challenges / roadblocks that learning professionals and corporations regularly encounter?

Mindset is the first and biggest challenge, I think there are still a lot of people who have ‘Course’ mindsets, in other words they look a problem and their kneejerk response to that is ‘we need a course for that’. Another major challenge for learning professionals is that most learning professionals have quite naturally developed their skills in design, development, delivery and to some extent evaluation of programmes and the changes that are occurring are requiring a new set of skills. If you are well into your career and you’re are required to have different skills such as performance consulting skills, curation skills, community building skills, these sorts of capabilities are really quite difficult. I found that for L & D professionals there’s some roadblock there.

The other roadblocks with line managers and team leaders who don’t see developing the people is critical. There is a lot of research that indicates that supporting an individual’s development is worth the equivalent of an extra day a week (around about 25-27%).

Who are your favourite elearning influencers? Who do you look to for inspiration?

Oh god that’s difficult! It’s difficult to name individuals, but across the board there’s a range of organisations who are just doing things differently.

I think you get some people like Clarke Quinn who really understands mobile learning deeply and has really helped progress mobile adoption.

Jane Hart, Jane Bozarth and Marcia Connor, those three women have done more in terms of raising awareness of social learning and the use of technology than pretty much anyone!

Then there are some great practitioners like Thierry Bonetto at Danone, Yash Mahadik at Philips, and then there are people like Nigel Paine who is really influential in terms of thinking about how we support development.

Then there are folks who might wince at being called superstars, but people like John Hagel and John Seely Brown who are not learning people primarily, but they’re looking at new revolutions in the way that we learn. John Seely Brown was the head of Xerox PARC for twenty years, he’s deeply technical, he oversaw the development of the PC and the mouse, he wrote a great book with John Hagel called ‘The Power of Pull’ and another one called ‘New culture of learning’. People like them are really being influential in terms of how we look at learning generally.

I think one of the challenges we’ve got with e-learning is that when it emerged, it emerged in the form of content led courses, companies were producing big generic catalogues, people realised that providing this Shovelware isn’t good. In my view the term E-learning will go away, I have a little thing stuck above my desk here, which was written about ten years ago by Warren Edwards chief executive of Delphi communications: ‘in a few years we will no more discuss e-commerce than we now describe using the telephone in business as t-commerce or the fax as f-commerce.’

I think in time we will no longer be referring to E-learning or M-learning, it’ll just be learning. Technology is going to be integrated totally.


What do you think? Do you share Charles’ views over the future of the industry? What do you think are the most important recent changes in E-learning? Share your thoughts in the comments box below, we’d love to hear what you think.

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